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The Order of Forms

Realism, Formalism, and Social Space

In literary studies today, debates about the purpose of literary criticism and about the place of formalism within it continue to simmer across periods and approaches. Anna Kornbluh contributes to—and substantially shifts—that conversation in The Order of Forms by offering an exciting new category, political formalism, which she articulates through the co-emergence of aesthetic and mathematical formalisms in the nineteenth century. Within this framework, criticism can be understood as more affirmative and constructive, articulating commitments to aesthetic expression and social collectivity. 
Kornbluh offers a powerful argument that political formalism, by valuing forms of sociability like the city and the state in and of themselves, provides a better understanding of literary form and its political possibilities than approaches that view form as a constraint. To make this argument, she takes up the case of literary realism, showing how novels by Dickens, Brontë, Hardy, and Carroll engage mathematical formalism as part of their political imagining. Realism, she shows, is best understood as an exercise in social modeling—more like formalist mathematics than social documentation. By modeling society, the realist novel focuses on what it considers the most elementary features of social relations and generates unique political insights. Proposing both this new theory of realism and the idea of political formalism, this inspired, eye-opening book will have far-reaching implications in literary studies.

240 pages | 6 halftones, 5 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


The Order of Forms offers a probing, ambitious, and innovative argument with far-reaching implications across fields. Kornbluh turns away from dominant particularist and historicist methods in literary and cultural studies and gives shape to a stimulating new set of strategies for thinking the political in the humanities and beyond. That she is capable of bringing together psychoanalysis, Marxism, literary formalism, and mathematics makes this a virtuoso work of theory.”

Caroline Levine, Cornell University

The Order of Forms is one of the most exciting books I’ve read in several decades. Staging the convergence of discourses that, however historically contemporaneous, have never been rigorously linked together, Kornbluh generates a series of provocative and convincing arguments about literature, criticism, and the agency of form. Her approach makes her a theoretical singularity.”

Sianne Ngai, University of Chicago

"Kornbluh should revolutionize our understanding of literary realism and its relationship to representation."

Rachael Scarborough King | Los Angeles Review of Books

"As proficient in contemporary critical theory, historical materialism, and formalist geometry as in theories of the novel. . .The Order of Forms makes a case for the 'world-building' nature of novels, which do not just unfold in particulars but also play in abstractions, performing and forming as well as reflecting their world."

Victoria Baena | Los Angeles Review of Books

“Kornbluh anchors her brilliant and challenging book in the 19th-century realist novel but goes well beyond those confines to argue forcefully for the political dynamism and durability of forms and formalisms in our time. . . . In its formidable push toward abstraction, its utopian striving for collectivity, and its insistence on building new futures rather than dwelling in the past, The Order of Forms often feels like a study of 19th-century culture in high-modernist mode.”


Public Books

“In [Kornbluh’s] dazzling book, formalist mathematics crystallises what forms can do, introducing new ways of organising thought and relationships. . . . Thinking about the co-emergence of aesthetic and mathematical formalisms in the 19th century alongside 21st-century psychoanalysis and Marxism, Kornbluh boldly gives shape to a new set of strategies for thinking politically in the humanities.”

Times Higher Education

"Anna Kornbluh’s second monograph on Victorian-era literature,The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space, joins a coterie of recent studies invested in the intersection of mathematics and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. . .With The Order of Forms as an aid, instructors will feel more at liberty to introduce students to this interdisciplinary practice of reading literature formally using math as a framework. . .Kornbluh’s book demonstrates how grappling with mathematical concepts can open up new relations between people, spaces, as well as the text."

Aaron Ottinger | Romantic Circles

The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Science is an ambitious and timely work… An insightful and original study that warrants engagements from critics.”


"Kornbluh’s alternative position can be bracingly fresh." 

Victorian Studies

"Everyone seriously interested in Victorian fiction should read... The Order of Forms... [It mounts] sharp, polemical, hugely stimulating arguments about the basic categories, form and realism, that structures [its] topic." 

Victorian Literature and Culture

"Kornbluh works across several disciplinary registers. Hers is a daring and ambitious program of research, and on all terrains the discussion is enviably sophisticated, rigorous, and fluent... The Order of Forms brings studies of Victorian literature and thought to the cutting edge of contemporary theory. It will be immediately seized upon for its memorable polemic about the political import of formalism, and for its very close readings of major Victorian novels — down to their typography in some cases. The book will also be returned to and studied for its indications of the path ahead in materialist research."


Table of Contents

List of Figures

Introduction: The Order of Forms: Mathematic, Aesthetic, and Political Formalisms

1. The Realist Blueprint: For a Formalist Theory of Literary Realism
2. The Set Theory of Wuthering Heights: Realism, Antagonism, and the Infinities of Social Space
3. The Limits of Bleak House
4. Symbolic Logic on the Social Plane of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
5. Obscure Forms: The Social Geometry of Jude the Obscure
6. States of Psychoanalysis: Formalization and the Space of the Political
Conclusion: Sustaining Forms


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